The Nazis murdered Esther Boissevain Grinberg’s father and six other relatives.
The rest of her family barely survived the war years in Holland. Yet Grinberg’s
family was not Jewish. Her parents, and 16 members of her father’s extended
family, were gentiles who paid the ultimate price for refusing to stand by as
Jews were being persecuted.
Today, the 78-year-old retired nurse is an
Israeli grandmother living in Kiryat Tivon. She was the inspiration for
“The Light in the Darkness,” a 10-day exhibition that opened on May 21 at the
Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa – a school of more than 2,000 pupils that
was founded in 1938 as a kindergarten for German Jewish refugees.
culmination of three years of student research, the exhibit includes authentic
photographs, documents, objects and artworks of the Boissevain family and of the
Jewish community in Amsterdam, with the cooperation of Yad Vashem Holocaust
Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority and the Dutch Friends Foundation of
the Holland Department of the Ghetto Fighters House Museum
The high school seniors were so taken with Grinberg’s
experiences that they wanted to share her family’s story of bravery, compassion
and humanity with the Israeli public.
“We really dived into her stories
and became close to her from learning the history of her family,” says Shani
Sarusi, a 2008 Baeck graduate who helped with the project. “I feel like a
niece to her.”
Sarusi says each of about 20 students made a work of art
to illustrate one of Grinberg’s accounts. The exhibition will include, for
example, a violin one of the Baeck seniors made in tribute to Grinberg’s cousin
Mies Boissevain, who sheltered Jewish refugee children including Theo Olof,
later an accomplished violinist.
The initiative began through Yael Rosen,
director of the Righteous Among the Nations Project at ATZUM, a social activist
organization. She tends to the financial and social needs of about 30 surviving
Israeli residents who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Close to 130 of
them chose to accept citizenship in the Jewish state after the
“Esther is one of the younger ones, and among the few who converted
to Judaism,” says Rosen, who has involved Baeck as well as Holon, Karmiel and
Jerusalem schools in caring for these aging heroes.
“A few years back we
sent Esther holiday cards written by the students. She was so pleased that we
asked her to write up her story, and that opened an opportunity for her to start
dealing with her family’s past. We sensed a real potential for a joint
educational project. She had so much to tell, and the students had so much to
gain from learning her story and meeting her.”
Miri Wolf, head of a leadership
development program at Leo Baeck that is affiliated with the Israeli Youth Award
program, worked with Rosen and acted as treasurer for the
Wolf says Grinberg not only helped rescue Jews but also
became an active community volunteer in Israel.
“Esther is a leader, and
the children were empowered, motivated and inspired by all her activities,” says
“They learned many new things about rescuers during the Holocaust,
and in the process they took an inner journey. They had to ask themselves how
they would have acted under similar circumstances – what choices they would have
made. It was very meaningful for them and their parents.”
required three successive groups of senior volunteers because it kept growing,
“We were helping Esther with her research, and new
discoveries kept coming out from students prompting her with
In 2008, Grinberg wrote a 26-page account of her family’s
activities in the war years. An 11-page addendum written in 2011 has information
revealed through the student project.
For young Esther (born Hester), the
hardships began in 1936, when the Nazis seized her father Robert’s assets due to
his business ties in Germany. They had to leave their Amsterdam house and live
more modestly in her grandmother’s summer home in Zandvoort on the Dutch coast.
As her father’s anti-Nazi activities grew, the family of eight moved several
times until settling into an empty Haarlem house owned by relatives.
afternoon in March 1943, her father brought home “dinner guests,” a Russian
Jewish couple named Goldberg and their 29-year-old daughter. They remained
hidden in the Boissevain residence until May 5, 1945.
“It changed our
lives completely,” Grinberg recalls.
“We were told never, ever [to] speak
about the Goldberg family. For this reason we were also not allowed to play with
other children or bring them home.”
Her father also went into hiding
later that year, but was betrayed, imprisoned and tortured. He died in
Buchenwald on April 12, 1945, as Allied soldiers were arriving.
the students asked Esther whether she ever heard from her father, and she
recalled standing next to her mother when she received a letter from him around
Christmas 1944. She asked her brother about it and he had the letter,” relates
Rosen. “It’s going to be part of the exhibition. And we also have original
documents written by the Jews they hid, which Esther found recently when she
went to Holland and looked through the old house.”
If life was tough
before her father’s departure, it got much worse after. Grinberg’s mother,
Sonia, received ration cards that allowed her to get watery soup for seven. But
she had to feed 11 people, counting the Goldbergs and a Dutch Jewish dentist who
had joined them.
For one seven-month stretch they survived by eating
tulip bulbs, which they shared with some elderly neighbors.
malnourished during the “hunger winter” of 1944-5, they hung on until American
and Canadian soldiers arrived in May.
After the war, Grinberg finished
nursing school and looked for a way to apply her skills broadly. “I saw pictures
of the [Jewish] immigrants coming in the ships and landing in Haifa, and I said,
‘This country needs help, so why not?’ I arrived in 1961,” Grinberg says
She converted when she married Edy Grinberg, mainly because she
wanted her future children to feel fully part of the Israeli nation. They raised
a son and daughter, and are the grandparents of five.
ON A cold, windy
Jerusalem day in 1980, the Grinbergs celebrated their son’s bar mitzva. Earlier
that morning, Sonia Boissevain joined them for a tree-planting ceremony at Yad
Vashem that officially recognized the family as Righteous Among the
“We stood there silently; the only thing my mother said [was]:
‘So Father must have endured it in the very cold of the winters, the many months
he lived there only in his striped pajamas, working, loading rocks for making
tunnels, until his tragic death at the end.’” As it turns out, 18 members of
Robert Boissevain’s family had been involved in rescuing Jews, but each kept the
secret so well that none knew what the others were doing.
More than 5,000
Dutch citizens are recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. However, unlike
the better-known Corrie Ten Boom, the Boissevains weren’t motivated by Christian
faith. “It had nothing to do with religion,” says Grinberg. “They just thought
what the Nazis were doing was absolutely wrong and wanted to do anything they
could to keep Jews alive. Seven of the 18 did not survive, including my
Grinberg’s uncle Wallraven van Hall, a prominent banker, devised
a daring scheme to funnel large sums of money to the Dutch Resistance and to
about 2,600 Jewish refugee families over the course of five years. He was
executed in 1945 in Haarlem. Today there’s a monument honoring him near the
Nederlandsche Bank in Amsterdam.
Another relative, Hester Baracs, saved
Jewish children including a 10-day-old baby. He grew up to become the Israeli
painter Benny Peleg, who came up from Rehovot for opening night to tell his
story and show his works.
Grinberg arranged for Baracs’s daughter and
granddaughter to come from Holland for the opening as well.
The items in
the show may become part of a traveling exhibition, perhaps under the purview of
the Ghetto Fighters House Museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot.
to know the youth are bringing it to the next generation so no one will forget
all the things my father’s family did,” Grinberg says.